Archive for June 6th, 2012

Views from the Galil

View of the north from Moreshet. Unfortunately Mt. Hermon was obscured by clouds. (click to enlarge)

Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN), the organization that promotes aliyah for North Americans, has a section on their website called “Communities.”  Just about every single community in Israel is listed there, whether a city, town, moshav, or yishuv.  Arranged both alphabetically and geographically, there is a brief description of each community, along with the type of population they cater to, the age groups, level and type of religious observance, cost of housing, percentage of English speakers, etc.  One community listed there sounded particularly appealing:  it was on a mountaintop in the Galil with not much else nearby; the views were astounding, and it attracted both religious and non-religious Jews, with everyone getting along quite nicely.  I could practically picture religious and secular Jews sitting around a campfire singing “Kumbaya.” For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to give it a pseudonym:  “Mitzpeh Mazeh.”

So I arranged a meeting with one of Mitzpeh Mazeh’s “macher-founders” who had lived there for the past 25 years, who hailed originally from New York and had the accent to prove it.  Located 10 minutes south of Karmiel, the Galil’s newest large city, we wended our way up and up and up the mountaintop.  It has magnificent views!  Before we would meet with our guy, I wanted to stop in the yishuv’s makolet (convenience store/market) for a cold drink.  But when I asked someone who was walking around how to find the makolet, they only laughed.  “We don’t have a makolet.”

Red flag!  I don’t care how tiny the community, in Israel just about every place has its own makolet.  It’s where you pick up milk, bread, eggs and cottage cheese because you don’t feel like shlepping to town, even if the prices are a bit higher.  It’s where you find out what’s new with your neighbor, who just had a baby and who is sick; you discuss politics or mention the latest bestseller.  There could be reasons why there was no makolet, but none of them were good:  either too many residents bought on credit and then couldn’t come up with the funds later in the month so the owner went broke; or there are some sort of politics and petty jealousies or crazy bureaucracy that kept the makolet from functioning.  I hate to generalize, but the absence of a makolet is a sign of dysfunction.

And true enough, there were no sounds of “Kumbaya.”  The old guard, a bunch of die-hard idealists, were just that:  old.  Many of them left the yishuv when they had to stop driving, or moved to be closer to children in the big city who could better watch over them as they aged.  The new people coming in were exclusively young, and non-observant, and they had little tolerance for anything to do with religious life.  As all of this was sinking in, the macher told us, “Listen, don’t be offended, you seem like nice people, but this place is not for you.”  We had already figured that out on our own, so we were not offended.  But the macher told us that because we didn’t have young kids in school that would serve as a bridge to others in the community, there would be nothing to give us a sense of connection to the place.  The oldsters had been together for 25 years, and while they would be nice to us, they didn’t need new best friends.  We would be lonely there, he said, and we agreed.

Because religious life had become de-emphasized with the influx of the new generation of non-religious residents, religious members of the yishuv tended to go to nearby religious settlements when they wanted to partake of a holiday, a class, or religious celebration.  “But,” he chortled, “that also has its downside, because the closest religious settlement to this one is more observant than the most religious person here.  A few months ago some of the guys went to that yishuv – – it’s called “Moreshet” – – and they came back shaking their heads, saying that something came up and they had a whole discussion about it  – – this one saying that such-and-such rabbi held a certain way, and another saying that such-and-such rabbi held differently, and they couldn’t agree on anything!”

“Hah,” I laughed, looking at my husband.  Picturing the chaos that ensued under the guise of religion, I said, “Remind me to avoid going to that community!”  We thanked the macher (he really was a very nice guy) and continued on to Karmiel, where we visited with friends and spent the night.  For reasons I shan’t go into here, it became rapidly apparent that Karmiel was not a good match for us, so the next morning we set out quite early to do some more sightseeing and make our way slowly back to Be’er Sheva.

Once again we passed the turnoff for “Mitzpeh Mazeh” and continued down the steep, windy Galil roads.  We passed a huge, walled, luxurious-looking  campus compound surrounded by several layers of barbed wire and lookout towers.  It was “Raphael,” Israel’s most sophisticated and secret weaponry research and production facility for high-tech defense systems for air, land, sea and space applications.  It’s sort of the Israeli equivalent of Los Alamos.  Raphael employs thousands of Israeli scientists and engineers who have top security clearances; 6,500 people work there.     We looked in our extremely detailed atlas, but Raphael’s location (tellingly) was not listed.

Shortly after passing Raphael,  a turnoff for “Moreshet” came into view – – the very community the macher had derided.

“Ooh!” I said to my husband, “let’s turn in here and take a look around.   It sounds like an amusing place, and we’re in no rush.”

The road leading to Moreshet

from a viewpoint near the entrance to Moreshet, a sign identifies various landmarks

On a clear day from this vantage point, one can see Haifa University, the Carmel, and Akko

Moreshet is at the crest of the hill

It was high on its own mountaintop, with 360 degrees of commanding views of Haifa Bay and the Golan Heights on a clear day (which, unfortunately, this was not).

Ever amenable, my husband drove through the security gate.  Beautiful landscaping abounded.  Everything was in bloom.  We stopped at the foundation stone sign.

Every town seems to have its own “motto.”  This is also true where I live in Maine.  In Stoneham it’s, “A Small Town . . . Overflowing With Tradition.”  In Waterford it’s “Welcome to Waterford . . . A Peaceful Village.”

But Moreshet quotes from Isaiah 52:7:  “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger that announces peace, the harbinger of good tidings, that announces salvation, that says unto Zion, ‘Your God reigns!'”

The entrance to Moreshet

Etched onto the back of the Moreshet sign at the entrance, a quote from Isaiah 52:7

My first stop was, of course, the makolet.

It wasn’t large, but it was extremely well stocked, and the prices were not at all outrageous.  The cashier and many of the customers went out of their way to be friendly to us.  I was impressed.

We walked over to the shul, located in a temporary building until the main shul’s construction is complete, where the later morning minyan was finishing up.  As the men unwrapped their tefillin, my husband ambled over and started shmoozing.  He was immediately struck by how friendly and helpful they were.  One of them gave us a brief synopsis about the community, and told us we should go to the main office to find out more.

As we walked around, the thing that struck me was how comfortable it felt.  There was a mix of ages – lots of young marrieds in their 30s, but plenty of people with grey hair as well.  The young couples reminded me of my own children; their children, my grandchildren.  This may sound egocentric, but everyone kind of looked like . . . us.  In a good way.

We passed an older gentleman who was watering the flowers on his front lawn.  We must have looked lost, because he said, “Can I help you?”  He gave us directions to the main office, which unfortunately turned out to be open only in the afternoons on Thursday, and it was now 10 a.m.  Undaunted, we continued walking around, looking at the magnificent elementary school, the sports center, and a huge and beautiful synagogue and educational center under construction that would someday hold hundreds of worshipers and classrooms for Torah study.  There were several parks, and the streets were immaculate.

A public walkway in Moreshet

A nursery school

One of several parks and playgrounds

The gym and community center

The elementary school

The shul and adult educational center is under construction. There’s no escaping it: residents must pay a shul building fund!

A view of the shul from the other side, under construction

The homes constructed in the original phase were well maintained with lovely gardens.

On the outskirts of the yishuv there was a rugged walking trail leading to the height of land, with markers identifying the nearby mountains.

The path leading to the overlook above Moreshet.

Handmade ceramic markers set in rocks around the overlook identify landmarks

On a clear day you can see Haifa and Akko . . .

Pointing out the views of Nahariya, Rosh Hanikra, and Lebanon . . .

Views of Nazareth, Tzipori . . .

As we returned to the residential area, the man who had been watering his flowers was now busy scrubbing his bbq grill.  “Was the office open?” he asked.  We explained that it was only open in the afternoon, which was really a shame because we wanted to find out more but we couldn’t stay so long.

“Well, then,” he said, “why don’t you come in for a cup of tea?  I can perhaps answer any questions you might have about Moreshet.”

We drank that tea for 90 minutes, as guests of Ya’ir and his wife Rivka.

Introductions were made.  “I’m actually Palestinian,” Ya’ir said with a grin.  “My parents came here shortly before the War, and I was born here in 1944, before there was a State of Israel.”  He had worked for Raphael but was now retired.  His wife until recently was an international tour guide operator and had accompanied Israelis to China, South America, South Africa, Canada, the US, and much of Europe.  Lately, however, her life was mostly about caring for her 96-year-old mother, who still lived independently near Haifa, where Rivka  traveled to visit her mother daily.

“We’ve lived here about 10 years now,” she said, “and we really love it.  And now that Kvish 6 (the main highway) has expanded, it’s less than 2 hours to Jerusalem!  And once they finish building the new train station to Yokneam – just 6 minutes away – we’ll be able to easily connect with any part of Israel in no time!” she said, smiling.

“The amount of things happening here is truly amazing,” continued Ya’ir.  Besides the usual school activities and associated clubs for children like karate, music, art,  sports, and nature, we have lots going on for the adults, too.  There are parenting classes for the young couples, and we also have monthly organized bus trips and tours around Israel.  This weekend we are going to Gush Etzion where we’ll learn about the history of the area, and visit the yishuvim and go to some wineries.  And as far as Torah classes – we have at least 10 different classes every day, some for men, some for women, some for children and teens, and some for a mixed audience.  Moreshet has its own resident rabbi, Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen.  Basically, the resources are here if you want them.”

” . . . But if you don’t,” Rivka added, “that’s okay, too.  People respect your privacy, unlike what goes on in many other places like kibbutzim.”

“Oh, and we also have several volunteer committees.” Ya’ir continued.  One concentrates on gardening and landscaping, another on organizing cultural or educational  activities, and another is for absorption of new residents.  You see, we are a small place, and we pride ourselves on the fact that most everyone really gets along with one another.  That’s partly because anyone who wants to live here must be screened by a committee.  There are interviews, psychological tests, required references, etc.  The process can take 6 months or more.

“Right now we aren’t even accepting anyone.  That’s because we only accept people based on the number of vacancies we have.  Moreshet is being built in phases.  Right now we’ve just finished selling 40 lots for Phase Four.  People who have been accepted may purchase a lot and then build their own house.  So until those 40 houses get built, we’re not opening up applications for Phase Five.  We hope to build in six phases, with a maximum of about 270 families.”

This will be the location of the next group of building lots

A view of houses under construction in the current building phase

New houses under construction

An overview of Moreshet; the current building phase is on the left

With such strict requirements, I wondered if we would even have a chance of getting accepted, especially due to our age.  Israel is a young country, and it is the youth that are building and ensuring Israel’s continued growth.  The downside is that anyone over the age of 35 – 40 is considered past his prime (!), and may suffer discrimination in the job and housing markets.

“Actually, Moreshet is pretty unique in that way,” Ya’ir reassured me.  “Most settlements and small communities only want young people – – that’s true.  But we believe it’s short-sighted.  Look, it’s very nice to have a vibrant community of all young people.  But what happens in 30 years from now?  That community is almost exclusively made up of old people, and a new crop of young people don’t want to come into a community of oldsters!   We feel a community of mixed ages is healthier.  So when there is a new building phase, we create quotas:  “x” percent are accepted who are ages 20 – 30, “x” percent who are ages 30 – 40, and “x” percent who are ages 50 – 70.  So yes, there is hope for you!”

We had been through several communities in Israel, but Moreshet seemed to have everything we were looking for as a place to reside permanently.  English speakers made up 15% of the population.  Twenty percent of the population were ages 50 – 70.  Moreshet was surrounded by nature and the emerald forests of the Galil; people were relaxed and kind and got along; the residents enjoyed intellectual stimulation both religiously and secularly; they put Torah very high on their list of priorities yet worked in a variety of professions in the secular world; the housing was of high quality yet more affordable than many other places; the location was only 25 minutes from city and medical amenities (Afula, Nazareth, Haifa, Karmiel) yet far enough away to enjoy peace and quiet and a slower pace in life, and it was not too hot or humid (although it does get a lot of rain in the winter).  There were Arab villages in the vicinity but not very close by, and they were not known as “troublemakers.”  Plus, the Israeli government is waging a campaign to encourage more people to settle in the Galil, and there are no “political” issues regarding territory and boundary lines.

After thanking Ya’ir and Rivka, we left feeling very excited and enthusiastic.  Back in the car, I remarked to my spouse, “Such nice people – we really ‘clicked.’  I can imagine us being good friends some day.”

A few days later I got this email from Rivka:

” . . . Personally, we are glad that you like our place and wish to come and live with us in the Galil. When you left our house we both felt that you are the right people to be our friends and neighbours . . .”